CINCINNATI — Two kids who have spent a large portion of their lives traveling to Cincinnati to receive medical treatment soon will board an airplane for a much more exciting reason: to participate in the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro on Aug. 5.
Twelve-year-old Hana Allen of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, and 9-year-old Darius Ziabakhsh of Vernon, New Jersey, were both born with VACTERL association, a rare disorder that causes malformations of the spinal column, anus, heart, esophagus, kidneys and limbs. Because of their condition, Hana and Darius have spent the past eight years in and out of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and have stayed with their families next door at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati during their visits.
Despite the fact that, when they were younger, Hana and Darius were both at the Cincinnati Ronald McDonald House roughly two to five times a year for sometimes months at a time, the two have never met.
On Monday, they finally came face to face via Skype, at send-off parties at their local McDonald’s restaurants.
“One of the things we truly value at McDonald’s is family and bringing people together,” said Scott Rockwell, general manager and vice president of McDonald’s Heartland Region. “We saw a great opportunity to work with Ronald McDonald House and bring together people who have gone through unique experiences for an awesome event.”
Hana and Darius are two of eight kids chosen from the United States to take part in the Olympics’ opening ceremony through the McDonald’s Olympics Kids Program.
Although this marks the ninth year McDonald’s has sponsored kids to go to the Olympics through its Olympics Kids Program, this is the first time McDonald’s has worked with Ronald McDonald House Charities, and the first time the kids McDonald’s sponsors will have a role in the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
This year’s McDonald’s Olympics Kids Program is based on the spirit of friendship, and Hana and Darius were chosen because they share the same condition and have both spent time at the Cincinnati Ronald McDonald House.
“I think they’re going to be good friends,” said Heather Allen, Hana’s mother.
Hana, who counts among her favorite activities swimming, playing Legos, archery and horseback riding, learned the news at a surprise party on July 19 at the Ronald McDonald House in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I think it’s cool,” she said. “I’m excited to go to Rio to see gymnastics and horse jumping.”
Darius was asked to come down to the field at a July 13 New York Red Bulls soccer game in Harrison, New Jersey, his mom, Tracy Smith, said.
“When they announced it, he kept looking at me,” she said. “He was so confused. All he heard was ‘Darius Ziabakhsh, you are going to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil.’ He looked at me like it wasn’t real. I had to tell him it was. He put his hands over his mouth and was in shock. Every day since, the first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning is asks if it’s real.”
As happy as she is that Hana and Darius were chosen for this opportunity, Jennifer Goodin, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, said she’s equally excited for the kids’ moms, who get to travel to Rio with them.
“They have been incredible lifelong caregivers to Hana and Darius,” Goodin said. “It changes the course of your whole life, and I’ve never once heard them complain about anything. (Heather and Tracy) are such strong, brave mothers, and watching them take care of their kids and encourage them to have such fulfilling lives despite what they’re going through is so inspirational.”
Follow Hana’s and Darius’ stories on Twitter @RMHC or @McDonalds #FriendsWin.